Obstacles to Downsizing: The Inner Sentimentalist


Photo copyright Janet Hulstrand


In a recent post, I wrote about some of the “voices” that keep me from moving forward with the task of downsizing. In that particular post, I talked about the voices of my “inner ecologist” and my “inner altruist.” And I promised to introduce you in a future post to my “inner collector” and my “inner archivist,” both of whom also have plenty of reasons (some, though not I, would say “excuses”) for not getting rid of certain kinds of things.

But what I completely forgot about at the time is one of the MAIN culprits many people encounter when downsizing–and that is the “inner sentimentalist.”

Probably at this point I should mention that the reason I forgot about the Inner Sentimentalist is that our book does such an EXCELLENT job of helping to rein in the Inner Sentimentalist that dwells in many of us, and getting her (or him) to allow us to proceed with the task at hand, that I completely forgot I even had one! (This is actually true!)

I often tell people I know that our book is a good and helpful one because it has helped ME get rid of many things that, had I not had the experience of writing our book, I certainly would not have been able to get rid of–or at least, not nearly as easily.

One of the things we talk about in our book is how it is important to separate the memories from the objects--because often it is the memories we really want to keep (and they take up so much less space!). Often we don’t really need to keep the objects to which they are attached, once we have found a way to celebrate, preserve and otherwise keep the memories.

And so, as I have been involved in peeling away the layers of “getting rid of stuff” that I have had to do in recent years, my Inner Sentimentalist has made scarcely a peep. (She knows it is the memories, not the objects, that count!)

This is not to say that she is entirely dead (or, I suppose some would say, though not I!–entirely cured). She still pipes up once in a while, making her feelings known when I am weighing the value of some very sentimental object, or artifact, against the weight of holding onto it any longer.

A good recent example is when I thought I had lost the ceramic figurine my grandmother gave me when I was 10 years old.

This figurine is rather important to me mainly because it is because of her that I had figured out (perhaps erroneously, not sure yet!) that my grandmother really didn’t like me very much.

That’s a whole ‘nother story that I am not about to tell here, you will have to read my memoir one day, when it is published. For now just let me say that this little ceramic figurine played a key role at a key moment in my life, a moment in which I questioned whether a notion I had held onto since childhood–that my grandmother didn’t really like me–was true.

Anyway, none of that matters for the point I am trying to make here. The point I am trying to make here is that the figurine was important to me, and I thought at a certain point in the process of getting rid of things in my storage locker that I had lost it.

In the past, this would have been EXTRAORDINARILY upsetting to me. (I mean, how important is that? A figurine that represents such a very important awareness about one’s life, and one’s grandmother?!)

Pretty important.

And it was even more important because I had kind of pictured that figurine possibly  being worked into the book cover of my memoir one day. (Most writers have fantasies along these lines, and I am no different in that regard…)

Anyway. Here’s the point. When I thought I had lost her, I will not say I was not upset, because I was.

But I was more annoyed than anything like devastated. (I think before we wrote our book on downsizing I would have been more or less devastated.)

As it was, my thought process went something like this:

“Damn! I can’t believe it! Did that box go off to the thrift store by accident? Damn!”

But I did not stop to mourn the possibly-missing figurine. I did not stop to cry about it. I did not stop to look frantically everywhere for the box in which the figurine had been.  I just kept doing what I had to do.

I knew I had taken a picture of the figurine, so my potential book cover was safe.

I knew that if I didn’t find the figurine, it wouldn’t be the end of the world.

And so, when I did find it (after all), all I thought was, “Oh! Here it is! (after all)…”

SO MUCh less sturm und drang than there would have been in the past!

Here’s the thing: once you know, really knowthat it’s the memories, not the objects, that are important, then this kind of annoying thing (which takes place unfortunately QUITE OFTEN in the discombobulating experience of moving and downsizing)…Anyway, once you know it, really, really know it?

Losing things doesn’t have to be as upsetting.

And there is a wonderful kind of freedom in that.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of  Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.



When a Hoarder Leaves Home

Other people’s stuff just left out on the street.

A friend asked me if I would like to help her clean out the home of a friend of hers. The homeowner is 70 years old, a consummate New Yorker, and…a hoarder. She had a health emergency that landed her in a rehab facility and her sister reached out for help sorting through what to bring her sister at the facility and what could be given away. I agreed to help.

To say that I really didn’t understand what the job entailed would be an understatement.

What she has

When we arrived at her home, one of the most obvious things about the place is that it is overstuffed. There are dozens and dozens and dozens of plastic storage bins, some small with cubbies, others larger chests with three drawers, in every room.

One container in the dressing area was full of shoulder pads covered in various fabrics, the kind that were part of “power” clothing in the 1980s, apparently cut out of dresses and jackets. She saved them all.

On one shelf were patterned cotton scarves, folded neatly and clearly never worn, in 17 different colorways. Yes, 17. I counted them. She was evidently a huge fan of scarves. We have uncovered hundreds, some well worn, others brand new.

The bottom drawer of one of the plastic storage containers was full of jars of the same lotion. There must have been 50 or 60 jars, most of them unopened.

Along one wall of the hallway were shelves holding nearly 1000 VHS tapes and over 150 DVDs.

What we’re doing

We are trying to donate as much of the usable items as we can.

We have brought many, many industrial-size trash bags full of used clothing to fabric recycling at our local farmers’ market.

Dressy clothing that is new or only lightly used, along with handbags and small purses and decorative household items, is going to a charity that raises funds through its thrift shops and uses that money to help those in need.

We brought other more practical clothing and unopened personal care items to a woman’s shelter, thanks to another friend who took care of that for us. That friend has also taken a couple of backpacks filled with more personal care items to a shelter for teens.

We have brought medical equipment and supplies to a charity that makes these items available to people in need.

We sent the VHS tapes to a company that recycles them (or disposes of them responsibly) and donated the DVDs to a local thrift store.

We have trashed as little as possible: old make-up, half empty bottles of shampoo and lotion, and other items that are beyond use.

What we’ve learned

In interviewing Dr. Gail Steketee, coauthor of Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, I learned that hoarding is the inability to discard or remove items that are no longer needed and that one of the top reasons for hoarding is the wish to avoid wasting things that may have value.

Our response to that is to acknowledge that so much of the stuff in this woman’s home has value and we will not waste it, simply put it in the trash it, but rather make sure it goes to a place where it will be used.

New homes can be found for almost everything, it just takes a little searching.

And for us, or at least for me, I’ve learned that what I have is enough, I don’t need to buy more. Helping to sort through the home of a person who kept way too much stuff is a lesson in anti-consumerism.

Being in this home offers me a look at what purchasing somewhat indiscriminately can lead to. It’s a lesson on how to be more measured in consuming and how important it is to sort through and get rid of things on a regular basis, small steps often, rather than waiting for what has become a large and somewhat onerous task.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Reflections on Downsizing: Where Is Your Regret-o-Meter?


Me in a moment of no regret at my favorite thrift store (St. John’s of Norwood Op Shop) in Bethesda, Maryland. (I had a few little regrets later. But I got over them!)

Downsizing and decluttering the home is for most people not just a one-time thing: it is a constant process, and most people go through several episodes of “extreme decluttering” in their lives as they downsize in the process of moving from a large house to a smaller house; a small house to an apartment; an apartment to assisted living, and so on…

And I’ve just been through another round of radical downsizing.

As some of you may already know, my coauthor and I have pointed out in our book, and also frequently on this blog, that the world divides roughly into “keepers” and “throwers.” Both of us are on the “keeper” side of the spectrum, and we both come from families that had a lot of  keepers also.  While some people find this ironic–a couple of downsizing experts identifying themselves as “keepers,” I mean–I actually think this is one of the biggest strengths of our book. Because being who we are, and coming from the families that we come from, we know that keepers need sympathy, respect, encouragement, and helpful tips (helpful tips that work even for keepers!), not criticism, shaming, or being bossed around as they go through the process of downsizing.

We also know that no matter what anyone says, there’s really nothing all that easy about downsizing and decluttering, at least not for keepers. So we don’t try to make anyone think it is: we just share ideas for how it actually is possible, even for keepers. (!)

So, here is the latest piece of advice I have to share with the keepers of this world, after my latest round of downsizing. If you are a keeper, every once in a while during a process of extreme letting go of items, you should check your “regret-o-meter.”

What is a “regret-o-meter”? Well. That is just a term I thought up the other day when I was taking a walk and reflecting on some of the things I had given away during my last round of aggressive downsizing. (A quick Google search shows that I am not alone in having thought of such a term, though I don’t know if anyone else has used it to talk about downsizing before.)

In any case, here is the advice that occurred to me in that same stroll around the block. I hope it will be helpful for some “keepers,” and that maybe it will give any “throwers” who happen to love them some insight into how keepers think, and what they may need to do in order to stay with the task.

  1. If you are a “keeper” and you have NO  regrets AT ALL about having gotten rid of some of the items in your household, you are probably not moving quickly or aggressively enough.  Think of the regret-o-meter as a device with a needle, like a compass. On the “high” end of the dial is “deep and painful regret about many items you’ve gotten rid of.” On the other end of the dial is “no regret at all.” When you are involved in downsizing and decluttering, you really want the needle to be somewhere in the middle: which means (at least for keepers) that you will probably feel some wistfulness or regret about some of the items that you kind of wish you would not have given away, at least not yet. But you will NOT go back into the garbage (or the thrift store, or wherever you placed this item), to retrieve it. And you will most likely get over this “pang” of regret relatively quickly, say, within a few days. Because you will know that although you fundamentally wish you never had to make these decisions, and that to be perfectly honest, you’d prefer to pretty much keep everything forever, you know that you CAN’T do that and also have a functional, healthy, smooth-running, visually pleasing home. You just can’t. So you remind yourself of that, you take a deep breath, or a walk, or go do something fun, and the next time you think of the item, whatever it is, the “regret’ needle has slipped a bit down on the dial. If it hasn’t, or if it has even moved up the dial, remind yourself that you can always go to the thrift store (or wherever you left it), and see if it is still there. And if you do this and you find it is no longer there, remind yourself that that’s okay. It’s gone. It was something you liked, you enjoyed it, and now someone else has it. People lose things they like all the time. They get over it, and you will too.
  2. If the needle on your regret-o-meter is on the “high” end of the scale, you’re probably moving too quickly. And you are probably not giving yourself time to do the “leave it overnight” or “leave it til next  week” test for those items you’re really reluctant to give up, but think that you probably should. (Often this test can help “keepers” separate from their cherished items gradually, rather than suddenly and abruptly; and in such a way that is not as likely to cause future regret.) It can also help ensure that some of the items you can’t keep anymore get to places where they can be treasured, used, or kept for historical purposes rather than just being tossed into the trash in a fit of desperation.

I promised in my last post to tell you about my strategies for dealing with my Inner Archivist and my Inner Collector, two of the aspects of myself that can tend to obstruct the downsizing process. I also want to tell you about how successful our book has been in getting my Inner Sentimentalist to be much more able to get rid of those things that represent special memories than I used to be. Our method really works!

So stay tuned for all that–and to those of you who are downsizing, watch that dial! Don’t let the fear of regret keep you from doing the job. But don’t drown in regrets, either. There is a fairly comfortable middle ground, and if you and those around you are patient and persistent enough, you can find it!

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of  Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.


Downsizing: Do Habits Have a Greater Impact than Goals?


I read some intriguing posts this week about habits.

James Clear, a productivity expert who uses behavioral science to help people optimize their habits (see his newsletter), in discussion with author Jay Papasan, talked about motivation. He says, “The key hypothesis is that habits offer a way to control our lives and that having this control supports motivation for making positive change.”

He goes on to say that in many cases people assume that what they lack is motivation, when what they really lack is clarity.

“We often focus on the achievement, but in fact, the way that we ever get anywhere is through some kind of repeated action or system… I like to think about it as the system supports the habits that will help you achieve the goal.” That’s worth thinking about: the habits become the system that will help you achieve the goal.

“The question then is, what if you just completely forgot about the goal [and] just focus on the system?…Would you still get results? I think you would.”

So rather than focus on having a clean closet, for example, you set up habits like sorting through each item of clothing on a regular basis. As we say in our book, break down the goal into manageable tasks.

Jeremy Dean, psychologist and author of Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How We Do Things, Why We Don’t, and How to Make Any Change Stick, explains how to take charge of your brain to make any change stick.

He has a plan he calls WOOP: Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan

“Write down the wish, the habit you want to achieve, then the best outcome of the habit, then the obstacles you are likely to face. Then make a specific plan.”

So look at your wish, to clean our your closet, and the obstacles to achieving it. Too tired to do it after work? Schedule a time with yourself that works for you, a time you can stick with.

Sonja Lyubomirsky is a psychologist and author of The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want, a guide to understanding the elements of happiness.

She says many different activities have been consistently shown to improve how we feel day to day.

“One habit which has been shown to increase well-being is savoring: reining your mind back in and forcing it to focus on the good things in life.”

Perhaps in focusing on our closet, we can be grateful for the abundance in our lives while, at the same time, realize we can pass along clothes we no longer use to those who could use them.

So create a double habit: we can focus on what’s good in our lives and contribute to the lives of others.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Obstacles to Downsizing: The Inner Ecologist and the Inner Altruist


The look on my face says it all. Getting rid of things can be SO hard to do!!!

During my most recent attack on the storage locker that is holding some of my things while I continue to work my way through a complicated and protracted international move, I was talking with some friends who are also going through the downsizing process, as they readied their house to put it on the market.

As we were commiserating one night about the misery of it all, the husband of the couple said, “The reason it is so hard is that there is nothing—NOTHING!!—natural about getting rid of things. We are all about acquiring them. And keeping them. And enjoying them. It’s in our DNA.”

“Hunter/gatherers,” his wife murmured in agreement.

And I said, “I really think you have hit the nail on the head.”

I think that indeed my friend is right, that this is at least a part of the reason—or maybe one could say one of MANY reasons—why downsizing is so difficult.

But most of us do know that we have to do it, at least to a certain degree, sooner or later, much as it goes against our nature.

And we also know that sooner is definitely better than later. Much as we hate to admit it!

This post is about how to deal with some of the voices we hear when we are downsizing that tend to impede the process of actually getting down and doing it—that is, getting rid of things.

At least these are some of the voices I hear that I have to argue with in order to keep the process moving ahead and get it done. Do you hear any of these voices too?

The Inner Ecologist.  The Inner Ecologist in me can’t stand to throw things into the trash that should really be either recycled or reused. (Please note: The Inner Ecologist is a good person, who cares about the earth!)

The problem is that when earth-friendly solutions are not readily available or easy to achieve, the stuff just stays there and adds to the clutter.

In other words, I procrastinate.

We’ve written a lot about various ways to recycle even very hard-to-recycle things on this blog, and there is guidance about ways to do this in our book also.

And as we have pointed out in our book, no matter what avenue you’re taking to get rid of things—selling, donating, recycling—the earlier you start, and the more time you have to complete the task, the better it is.

So what my Inner Ecologist needs to hear when she pipes up, protesting “Don’t throw that away!”  is this: “Find an earth-friendly way to get rid of it NOW, or know that one day it is going to end up in the trash where it SHOULD NOT BE. And if it does, you will feel just AWFUL about it. Plus, you might even get fined. “

That tends to get my Inner Ecologist’s attention and cooperation. 🙂  

Closely related to the Inner Ecologist is the Inner Altruist. The Inner Altruist is  someone who hates to waste. The Inner Altruist cannot stand to see “perfectly good things” (and often imperfect, not-so-good things) “go to waste.”

The Inner Altruist always wants to either use those things him or herself until they are absolutely, completely and CLEARLY no good–or give them to someone else “who could use them.”

The Inner Altruist is a good person too, and has many points of convergence with the Inner Ecologist, one of the most notable among them being the tendency to procrastinate.

So the Inner Altruist, like the Inner Ecologist, needs to be urged to take those things, whatever they are—clothing, shoes, towels, bedding, dishes, whatever!—that are not being used, and get them to someone who can use them NOW, before it is too late and someone comes along and THROWS THEM AWAY!!! (Horrors!)

In my next post, I will introduce you to two other creatures that dwell within me, these two even more difficult to deal with–at least for me.

So stay tuned to meet my Inner Collector and my Inner Archivist….sound familiar, anyone?

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of  Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.





Is Simplicity What We Really Want?



Minimalism sometimes gets a bad rap these days, often from the ‘savers’ among us more so than the ‘throwers.’

To many people, minimalism is all about the restrictions, how few things you can own, how few things you can buy. But according to the Minimalists, minimalism is a tool to rid yourself of life’s excess in favor of focusing on what’s important—so you can find happiness, fulfillment, and freedom. That sounds doable.

Maybe it’s the word minimalism that is a bit off-putting. Maybe simplicity is a more embraceable word.

So what exactly is simplicity? According to one dictionary it is the quality or condition of being easy to understand or to do. Another says it is freedom from complexity or intricacy. It’s defined as clarity or clearness, something that’s uncomplicated. That sounds appealing, very appealing. To have a life that is clear and uncomplicated, one in which it is easy to function and to do things is a good goal.

Frank Lloyd Wright said, “To know what to leave out and what to put in; just where and just how, ah, that is to have been educated in knowledge of simplicity.”

Can we be educated in simplicity? How do we know what is essential for us? How do we know what to focus on and what to ignore? Perhaps the simplest answer is to focus on what’s most important to us.

Leo Bautista explains, “Simplicity boils down to two steps: Identify the essential. Eliminate the rest.”

So what is essential to you? It may be grandma’s china, or your parents’ love letters, or your father’s ties, or favorite books from you kids’ childhood. If it’s important to you, then it stays and you find a place for it. Or perhaps you can share stories about the item and then let it go, to another family member or to someone who may appreciate it as much as you do.

It’s not so much about having more, that may be hardwired in our brains, but of educating ourselves to want less. Joshua Becker says, “Desiring less is even more valuable than owning less.” Learning to want less is being educated in simplicity.

And that’s not easy, given the society we live in. The humorist, Robert Quillan, captured that dilemma when he defined Americanism as “Using money you haven’t earned to buy things you don’t need to impress people you don’t like.” Of course, who we really want to impress is ourselves and our family. Keeping up a certain lifestyle, maybe one is isn’t really our true selves, is more complicated.

Yvon Chouinard, an environmentalist and founder of Patagonia, the outdoor outfitters, said, “The more you know, the less you need.” He was most likely referring to rock climbing and other outdoor pursuits but what if we learned more: about our interests, our family members, our ancestors. Would we would need less if we knew more? Perhaps we would need to keep fewer things if we knew more. That’s something to think about.

So is simplicity what we want?

Cedric Bledsoe said, “Simplicity is the essence of happiness.” And Leonardo da Vinci said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

I, for one, am in favor of a life that is happier and more sophisticated. I am embracing simplicity. Yes, simplicity is what we want.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Downsizing Chronicles: The Storage Locker, Part 3 (Interlude)


Consigning items for sale at my favorite thrift store in Bethesda, Maryland. (St. John’s Norwood Opportunity Shop)

As assiduous followers of this blog may already know, for a variety of fairly good reasons, I have been keeping a lot of my stuff in a storage locker for three years now.

As the coauthor of a book on downsizing the home, I certainly know all the reasons to try to avoid doing such a thing.

But as a person who is in the middle of a protracted international move, I know some of the advantages as well.

Renting a storage locker has allowed me to free myself of the necessity–and the expense–of holding down a place to live in Country A while I have been making the transition to living in Country B.

Because storage lockers are much smaller than homes, it also inspired me to get rid of a LOT of the things I was keeping before I emptied the house I had been living in for the past eight years, and flew across the ocean to a new life.

One of the biggest drawbacks of what I did, of course, is that it’s pretty hard to continue the process of downsizing when all your stuff is in a storage locker; you live across the ocean from that locker; and you don’t have a home anymore, anywhere near that locker.

Which is why the process of getting all of my stuff out of the locker is probably going to take something like forever to complete.

I returned to the storage locker a year ago with the somewhat–I now realize–overly ambitious plan of emptying it and redistributing the things in it in a few short weeks. That turned out to be a plan that was not only overly ambitious, but in fact, was actually not feasible, for a variety of reasons.

At first this was frustrating, and to be honest, a bit embarrassing too.

But I’ve decided there’s nothing to be embarrassed about. The transition I am making is a complicated one. And, although the commonly heard cliché is that “it’s all just stuff” is true of many of the things that got thrown into that locker–and in the three years since I first put them there, I’ve gotten rid of many of them–it’s also really not true of many of the other things I put there.

Many of the things I put in that storage locker were special in one way or another, some of them very special–and bit by bit I am finding ways to honor, preserve, treasure, reunite with, and enjoy some of them again–and give away, sell, or donate the rest. And yes. Some of the things are just plain being recycled or thrown away.

I’ve been at the task again over the past few weeks. In the process I’ve gained new insights into and had new thoughts about the whole matter of “stuff”–why we keep it, why it’s hard to part with some of it, why sometimes keeping certain things matters, and why sometimes it doesn’t. I’ve met some interesting people along the way, made some new friends, and been filled with gratitude for the support and kindness of old friends who have helped me through this process in a myriad of ways.

There will be more to come about all of this, I’m sure, in future posts. But for now, with all due respect to the minimalists of the world, I’d just like to say…

You know what? Sometimes it’s really not “all just stuff…” Sometimes it is the stuff that holds our memories together, and makes our houses homes. Some of it is documentation of the lives we’ve lived…

And some of that stuff is worth keeping. Even when it’s a lot of trouble to do so.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of  Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.



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